The exercise was conducted in 3 phases, a 7-day Nordic ski training package, followed by a 5-day self-sufficient Nordic ski touring journey crossing the Hardangervida following in the footsteps of the Heroes of Telemark and finally completing a battlefield study of Operation Grouse and Gunnerside on the 80th anniversary of the original mission.
Mali reported “I put my name on a list to be able to go to Norway in commemoration of the Heroes of Telemark not expecting to actually get a place. When I heard the news that I was not only going to Norway but to also ski, I was over the moon. I was really excited to be able to follow in the footsteps of the remarkable men that were capable of surviving out there for months with hardly anything and a huge lack of food. Before seeing the opportunity, I had never heard of the heroes of Telemark. I really wish that there was more emphasis on how brave and heroic these men were.
I would say the first day was the worst, I was dropped off at base and it was only then that I realised that I was completely independent and didn't know anyone there. I was the second to arrive and the more people who arrived the less we spoke, we sat in that room for a good two hours in somewhat awkward silence until one of the leaders arrived and thankfully got us all talking. It's so funny to look back because the people I was scared to talk to felt like family by the end.
The flight out was amazing, the views of Norway as we flew into Oslo were spectacular. I remember seeing a really curly river that looked so pretty in contrast to all the snow.
The first week was very relaxed in comparison to what we did in the second week. We gradually built up on distance and the weight that we carried. On the first couple of days, we spent a lot of time on flat ground just learning how to ski. It was completely different to the alpine skiing I had done the year before, so it really was baby steps. We all fell over a lot the first week but as one of my instructors said “You're not learning if you don't make mistakes and fall over, everyone falls over and that is how we improve”. We also didn’t have any weight on our backs for the first few days. I remember when we did start to wear out day sacks (which were a quarter of the weight/ size we had for the expedition) it did feel more challenging.
By the end of the week, we were carrying half the weight we would for the expedition and were traveling about 7 to 10 km a day. From the start, there was always going to be two teams. One would be the team that carried all their own equipment (we called them the ski team) and the team that had the snow dogs helping (we called them the dog team). From the start, I had really wanted to challenge myself and get into the ski team to prove to myself that I was capable. I put my name down and they agreed and said I was capable. It didn't really become real until I was up at the first hut and starting my journey. There were eight of us in the ski team and I was the only girl.
Moving on to the expedition we spent four hours in a coach and then an hour and a quarter on a snow scooter. The snow scooters were so much fun. We literally sat in the back of a little trailer that was attached to the snow scooter. It was a great way to start our journey. The snow scooter took us to the first hut we stayed in.
One of my favourite parts of the whole experience was the evenings and nights when we would sit and play cards for hours and listen to music from one of the guy's speakers. We quickly found out I had the best music taste so I was the DJ for the 5 days.
In my opinion, the first skiing day was the most challenging. We woke up at six to leave at eight. We started off the day by pulling the pulks (is a Nordic short, low-slung small sled used for transport, pulled by a dog or a skier, that had our food and sleeping bags and various other equipment in) down the hill because it was our very first time pulling them and it was quite a steep hill down. We wore skins on the bottom of our skis the first day to help with grip on the uphill and to slow us down on the downhill. When we started pulling the pulks, we did it in groups of four because we had two pulks and had two instructors. We skied 11km on the first day. By the time we got to the last km, we were all relieved to see the hut. We were briefed about the journey for the next day, which from the start we knew was going to be the most difficult day but we had all agreed that we just had to push through. We had planned to ski 23km to get to the next hut.
We got up at five to leave at seven for the long day ahead. We again walked the pulks down to the bottom of the hill in order to start our journey. I could tell from the start it was going to be a difficult day mainly due to the weather. It wasn't too bad when we started, the only thing was the wind in our faces which was chucking snow at us as well. I was second on the pulk and that was when the weather started to change. It had gone from a little wind and snow in our faces to a lot. The instructors made a decision to go back to the hut we were in the night before. Looking back this was 100% the right decision but at the time it was disappointing for everyone because it meant that we would have to find another route to make it off the plateau and therefore would have less time because we had to head back. On the way back it was so much easier because the wind and snow were on our backs. You don't realise how strong the wind is until it's behind you. It didn't take too long to get back to the hut. We were back at about ten. We did about 4 to 6 km that day. We all had dinner and then went to bed early ready to wake at seven to leave by nine.
Day three was another challenging day. We had a few big hills to pull and push the pulks up and a few downhill stretches as well. One of my favourite parts was watching people grow and become a lot more confident and capable. And one of the best feelings was when you saw someone smile or sing a song when it was getting difficult. We did about 16 km that day. We were privileged to be able to stay in a private hut the last night because we had had to change course. The hut was quite small so all twelve of us had to fit into a hut that comfortably fitted five. The main privilege of that hut was the incinerator toilet, it was lovely not having a cold smelly toilet. The last night we talked about the heroes and the punishments some of them got when Hitler found them. It really shocked us just how awfully they were treated for trying to save us.
The last day was probably my favourite because of the fact that the weather was lovely and the snow let our skis glide along the snow. We skied about 11 km downhill before reaching the end and when we did it felt like a massive achievement. That day we had done about 9km. We all shook hands and congratulated each other on how hard we had worked as a team and how far we had come.
Starting off the two weeks with little to no experience and ending being able to ski across the largest plateau in Europe while carrying all of our kit in rucksacks and sledges. By the end of those five days, we really did feel like a family.
On the very last day we got to re-enact the exact same route that the saboteurs had used for their route into bombing the heavy water plant. We did it in snowshoes which was a really fun and different experience compared to the skis that we had been using for so long. The museum was really interesting just getting to hear more about the heroic mission they were successful in completing.
Saying goodbye was really weird knowing that I will probably never see those people that I had gotten to know so well ever again. It truly was a once-in-a-lifetime experience and I would do it again in a heartbeat. I'm so thankful for all the people who organised the trip and also the saboteurs that never shall be forgotten!